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Biotechnology

With artificial intelligence, researcher aims to make planes 'uncrashable'

TOKYO -- August is a month of mourning in Japan. It is a time to commemorate the end of World War II and remember the millions who perished. Thirty years ago, another tragedy left an indelible mark on the nation's psyche: the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123. 

     On Aug. 12, 1985, shortly after takeoff, the plane suffered an explosive decompression that led to a loss of control. The Boeing 747 crashed into Mount Osutaka, north of Tokyo, killing 520. It remains the world's deadliest crash involving a single aircraft. 

With demand for air travel increasing around Asia, Japan's transport ministry plans to add flight slots at Tokyo's Haneda Airport.

     This year, officials and bereaved family members held a solemn anniversary ceremony at the crash site, lighting 520 candles and offering silent prayers.

     To prevent such a disaster from happening again, one Japanese researcher is working to develop a system that would make planes very nearly "uncrashable."

Situational awareness

At the request of an airline, Shinji Suzuki, an aeronautics professor at the University of Tokyo's School of Engineering, analyzed differences in the flight control techniques of experienced pilots and novices. Now he is seeking to use what he learned to create an artificial intelligence system that would help keep even a seriously damaged plane aloft. 

     According to Suzuki's findings, veteran pilots do not simply rely on flight instruments to assess factors like altitude, attitude and speed. They can tell a lot just by looking out the cockpit windows. They have a knack for calmly grasping the big picture. All this, Suzuki said, makes them better equipped to respond when something goes wrong.

     As Musashi Miyamoto, a legendary samurai, said in "The Book of Five Rings," "The eye of observation is strong and the eye of seeing is weak." Put another way, true situational awareness is the key to quickly responding to an attack. The same could be said of a pilot in an emergency.

     What does this have to do with artificial intelligence?

     Say part of a plane's main wing breaks off during a flight. The pilot will try to keep the aircraft flying by adjusting its position, engine power and other factors. What Suzuki is trying to do is to create a computerized system that can test such variables much faster and find the optimal solution to prevent a disaster.

     In 1941, Japanese First Lieutenant Yasushi Nikaido was test-flying a Zero fighter plane when its aileron -- a hinged panel on the rear edge of a wing -- was blown away. He managed to land his crippled fighter safely and became a legend in the Japanese aviation industry. With AI technology, Suzuki hopes to give all pilots the ability to perform similar heroics.

Accident rate

Suzuki has already run trials in partnership with Fuji Heavy Industries and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. "The risks of air crashes are growing due to the proliferation of drones and other factors," he said. "I think 'uncrashable' planes will be in high demand."

     In the past, the number of fatal plane crashes declined steadily. But over the last 10 years, the rate of such accidents has stood at around 0.5 per 1 million departures.

     The worldwide death toll from aviation accidents rarely exceeds 1,000 in a year, compared with more than 1 million deaths from car accidents. Yet global air traffic volume is expected to grow by nearly 5% a year, raising worries about the lack of further progress in reducing fatal crashes.

     Perhaps artificial intelligence will lead to the next big leap in aviation safety.

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